Schools must break the cycle of poverty
TheStar.com – Opinion/Commentary – By taking a few simple steps, Toronto schools could do a great deal to fight the city’s cycle of poverty.
Dec 17 2013. By: Sachin Maharaj Freelance Opinion writer
The New York Times recently published anincredible series titled “Invisible Child” that offers an in-depth look at child poverty and homelessness. It follows the life of Dasani, an 11-year-old girl that shares a 520-square-foot room with nine other family members in a homeless shelter in Brooklyn. The conditions are absolutely deplorable: mice and cockroaches, disgusting communal toilets, and sexual predators. And that is to say nothing of the internal problems within Dasani’s family. It paints a vivid picture of the adversity that poverty inflicts on children.
The one bright spot in Dasani’s life is school. The combination of learning, structure, and responsible adults provides a reprieve from the chaos and dysfunction at home. She is one of the smartest kids in her class. Teachers see her potential as being virtually unlimited. They say she could even be a Supreme Court judge one day.
Yet she is held back by her life circumstances. She often comes to school late, as she must take care of the rest of her family each morning before tending to herself. She also regularly arrives hungry, which saps her strength and affects her concentration. When her family does not have enough money to do laundry, she comes to school in stained clothes and faces ridicule from her peers.
But perhaps the most remarkable thing about Dasani’s story is how commonplace it is, even in Canada. Almost one million Canadian children live in poverty according to a recent report by Campaign 2000. And while the Ottawa vowed in 1989 to eliminate child poverty, little sustained progress has been made.
Many Toronto teachers see students like Dasani in their classrooms all the time — students with limitless potential, who are being crushed by factors outside of their own control. It is perhaps not surprising then that even in such a supposedly equitable city like our own, one of the largest predictors of educational success is still income. Schools with high test scores tend to be in wealthy areas of our city and those with low scores tend to be in poor ones. And as neighbourhoods become even more segregated along income lines, this divide will only get worse.
So can we do anything about this? While addressing child poverty is a complex issue, there are things that we could do in education to reduce its effects. First, we should stop segregation. In Toronto, we segregate students in two ways. The first is effectively based on income, as we force students to attend the school near to where they live. This is common practice in most cities, but with notable exceptions like Edmonton and Vancouver.
The second method of segregation is based on academics. Toronto is only one of a few cities that still streams students into different classes of secondary school. Hence instead of just having one type of high school for everybody, there is an academic hierarchy with “collegiate” schools at the top, “business” and “technical” schools at the bottom.
This segregation exacerbates problems in two ways. First, grouping together students that are struggling with poverty or a history of low achievement creates large negative peer effects. Behavioural issues get amplified, bad habits get reinforced, and everyone’s learning experience is negatively affected.
Second, schools become plagued by low expectations and low morale. Teachers expect less from students, and students less of themselves. What else explains the fact that Toronto’s lower income students are much less likely to be identified as gifted, but much more likely to be identified as having a learning disability and placed in non-academic classes?
And as we fight to mitigate segregation, we must also ensure that we have our best teachers teaching our neediest students. While school systems and teachers’ unions pretend that all teachers are equally effective, we know from both empirical evidence and personal experience that this is not the case. And research has shown that having above average teachers for a sustained period of time can actually close the achievement gap that exists between students from different socioeconomic backgrounds.
Probably the most depressing moment in the “Invisible Child” series is when Dasani’s mother tells her “you will live in the projects forever, as will your kids’ kids, and your kids’ kids’ kids.” We cannot let this happen. While schools did not create the conditions in which students live, they have a moral responsibility to do whatever it takes to mitigate these effects and break the cycle of poverty.
Sachin Maharaj holds an MA in educational administration from the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, University of Toronto, and is an assistant curriculum leader in the Toronto District School Board.
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